In years to come, when we look back at the 2017/18 season apart from recoiling in the horror it is likely that our two fixtures against Bolton Wanderers will be identified as season defining games.
In late October we stuttered to a 3-3 draw at the Stadium of Light which proved to be the final nail in Simon Grayson’s managerial coffin. Tuesday night’s 1-0 defeat may not be a fatal blow, but it certainly feels like our Championship status is existing on a life support machine.
To an outsider the situation may appear salvageable, but even the most ardent Sunderland supporter would struggle to see any light at the end of the tunnel. We currently sit bottom of the league, three points behind fourth bottom, Hull City but both the Tigers and second bottom, Barnsley have a game in hand on us. Our latest setback had the double negative of putting us bottom of the league, while Bolton extended their lead over us to seven points. A truly remarkable statistic considering that they were two points behind us after the reverse fixture and many had condemned them to relegation, while we were still in denial about our own team’s prospects.
Of course, mathematically things are far from over, a win on Saturday would put us back in touch, but how many times have we made similar comments? I’m sick of looking at fixtures saying, ‘well, if we get seven points from our next three games we’ll be okay’, only to lose all three. We can talk all we like about ifs, buts and maybes but we thoroughly deserve to be in the position we find ourselves in.
Mental toughness, character and resilience are attributes that are overlooked at times in the modern game, but in the Championship, they are all absolute necessities. Over the course of the season, how many times have green shoots of recovery sprung up, only to be stamped back into the undergrowth almost immediately.
Less than two weeks ago, we gained a last-gap point at play-off chasing, Bristol City in the most unlikely of circumstances. In the week building up to our next game there was a bit of a feel-good factor around the club, but instead of flying out of the traps at home to Brentford, we surrendered control of the game immediately and limped to a meek 2-0 defeat. Although the performance was improved at Bolton, we still failed to capitalise on crucial moments and lost to a poor side. In isolation you could argue that to lose to a refereeing mistake/goalkeeping error is unlucky. But it’s not unlucky when it happens week in week out. If we had cut out the stupid defensive errors and taken our chances we might not be in such a perilous position, but it all comes back to mental fragility and a gross lack of self-belief.
We’ve had fleeting moments where we have proved that we have a degree of resilience, in 1-0 wins over Fulham, Nottingham Forest and Hull City, but we have failed to back these results up. As soon as our game plan suffers the slightest setback it all goes out of the window and a capitulation is never far away.
Contrast that to Bolton, who are arguably an even more limited team than us but since promotion from League one they have fostered a togetherness and a siege mentality. Despite their limitations they dug deep and saw the game out. Their time-wasting tactics were infuriating but they managed a game in a better fashion than we have all season. They’ve gone from relegation certainties to four points clear of the relegation zone for a reason. Arguably their resources are even more stretched than ours, but their side looks far more united.
It wasn’t meant to be like this, when our relegation to the Championship looked inevitable, me and my mates comforted ourselves by planning potential second tier away days. Bolton was a game that immediately jumped out at us. After all, our record down there is canny in recent years; the tickets are fairly priced, and we always take thousands down there. But in the event of things I ended up standing there feeling utterly demoralised, along with 1,357 other hardy souls as the Bolton fans sang some shit version of Blaydon races and hero-worshipping Sammy Ameobi. Naturally, I am not criticising our away support, they stuck with the team throughout and given our position and the ridiculous ticket pricing of £32 a ticket the turnout was exceptional. But it just further proves the point that this season has been the antithesis of the romantic view of the Championship we tried to comfort ourselves with at the start of the season.
The news of Ellis Short reducing the asking price of the club even further was another timely reminder of the position we find ourselves in. But it is at least heartening to see supporters standing up to our current ownership. A petition may not be everyone’s idea of protest, but it is a great start, the accompanying statement is from the heart and reflects the views of many Sunderland fans around the world.
It is crucial that the people who are chiefly responsible for ruining our great club are held to account. After our relegation was confirmed last season Short released a statement which contained the following: “We need to improve, both on and off the field, and despite the bitter disappointment of today there is a strong determination to do so throughout the club. There is significant work to be done over the summer and when the season is concluded, we intend to share our plans to move forward with our supporters”.
There are so many fundamental issues with this brief extract, for a start, where’s the determination to improve on and off the field? Off the field we have seen horrendous transfer dealings, fan disillusionment and bad PR. On the field, well where do I even begin? We are in such a state that our top goal scorer who was only on loan decided that a spell warming the bench at Aston Villa would be a preferable option.
The statement also pledged to learn from the recruitment mistakes of the past, naturally this had to include a tightening of our belts, but we certainly haven’t learned any lessons at all from our previous errors. Our current rabble is made up of free agents, loanees and over the hill players. The result? Almost certain relegation, a club in our position only gets loan players like Jake-Clarke Salter and Ejaria who have played little or no first team football in their careers because their clubs are just desperate for them to get minutes under their belts. The alternative of course is the likes of Kazenga Lula Lua who are that out of favour that their contract gets terminated by their employers. Either that or second choice ‘keepers from Cardiff. Whatever your thoughts on Chris Coleman he is trying to turn Asda smart price ready meals into Michelin star winning food, with a broken oven and a rodent infested kitchen with our current squad.
His promise of increased transparency has also proven to be empty words, apart from his stage-managed interview on SAFSEE earlier this season he’s been silent. Even then he feeds us with more fake news about being a dedicated fan of the club and caring about us, which was contradicted by Coleman who described Short’s love for the club as being “yesterday.” Surely such a loyal Sunderland supporter couldn’t merely sit back and watch us sleep walk to successive relegation's.
While Martin Bain hasn’t been here for anywhere near as long he also cannot be blameless in this situation. I appreciate that he is working for Short more than he’s working for the club, but he has overseen shocking on and off field developments. Earlier in the season he was boasting about bringing in two goalkeepers for 500k whilst selling Vitto Mannone for £ 2.5 million. That quote hasn’t aged well to put it politely and other than equally stage-managed interviews there is no transparency at the club.
For too long now, this football club has been dying before our very eyes and barring an unlikely resurgence, things will only get worse. We have an absent owner, a failing CEO and a poorly assembled team full of players who will have no accountability for their failings one they leave. We have already seen James Vaughan mocking the club on twitter just a month after departing to be a squad player at a league one club. I accept that Vaughan was reacting to fans mocking his time at Sunderland, but rather than look himself in the mirror and take ownership of his failings, he responds in that way. He obviously feels nothing for the club he’s just played for. I fear this attitude is far too prevalent amongst many footballers, in six months’ time when the loanees go back to their parent club’s I suspect that they will not give us a second thought and we’ll be nothing but a slight blot on their copy book. Therefore, it is slightly ironic that we are often lectured on how to support our team when nobody else at the club takes an ounce of responsibility themselves. Things can not go on like this.